Town, gown, beach, mountain, newspaper: An imaginary partnership between UCSC and the Santa Cruz Sentinel

What happens when thousands of undergraduates looking for a good time seasonally invade a small California town with its ethos firmly planted in 1968 and its economy floating unabated in the real estate bubble of 2004-2007? Find out on the next episode of “Keep Santa Cruz Weird.”

I kid. I kid because I (still) love Santa Cruz from afar, having lived there for six years or so, and having worked in the news business full time for the first time at the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

But we’re not here to reminisce about my days on the Central Coast of California — except for the part where we’ll do just that — we’re here for the…

Carnival of Journalism

Let’s get the housekeeping out of the way, shall we?

David Cohn recently re-animated the Carnival of Journalism from its long slumber, and the first topic of conversation is the following:

The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community: One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with?

Conveniently for me, that’s open-ended enough that I feel free to use my imagination. I’m genuinely interested in how a university’s journalism department (if applicable) and/or student news organization (sometimes more likely, independent or not) and a local news organization (I’ll stick to a newspaper in this exercise, since that’s what I know best) can build a successful collaborative news product/process around important local issues.

(Was that enough parentheticals? If you’re new around here, just wait until I get going with the emdashes.)

If you’ve been paying remarkably close attention to this blog, you might be waving this post at me, where I said I would use San Jose State — where I went to graduate school, worked on the student newspaper, and learned more about the intimate inner workings of a university journalism department than most students should — and the Mercury News in this exploration.

Well, yeah, I said that, but thinking about it for a few more minutes, decided that it might be easier — and less offensive to some friends of mine — to imagine, speculate, and generalize about UC Santa Cruz’s journalism program rather than the Merc, while writing with a minuscule but somewhat more authoritative voice about the Sentinel, where I will no doubt offend a few people if I do this right at all.

Enough with the housekeeping. Let’s get to the content.

Town

To set the stage, as I did a bit more snarkily in the intro at the top of this post, Santa Cruz is weird.

In a very traditional, Californian sense.

Let me give you a few examples of real issues that were heavily debated while I lived there (some of these lively discussions rage on today.) I’m not trying to demean these issues — they are real, and in most cases, I have a point of view on them myself.

  • A ballot measure to officially make police enforcement of marijuana possession laws their lowest priority.
  • The university’s long-term growth plans, as they related to the amazing redwood forest it was plunked down in back in the 1960s when it opened with a much smaller student body.
  • Panhandling, dogwalking, unchecked coffee shop reproduction, and other plagues of the main street of downtown Santa Cruz, Pacific Avenue, which any local over the age of 40 will tell you used to be closed to car traffic within 30 seconds of its mention.

Plus, aside from the actual City of Santa Cruz (pop. 56,124), there’s the much larger Santa Cruz County (pop. 253,157), which includes a multitude of towns as diverse as Watsonville (with its large Mexican-American population) and tiny Felton (with its many trees).

Gown

Like most college towns (generalization alert), for better or worse, Santa Cruz is overrun with thousands of undergraduates from September through June.

And believe it or not, none of them are journalism majors or minors, because at the moment there is no such thing at UCSC. Nevertheless, when I first encountered newsstands around campus, I found them to be stocked with a few different student publications, including a somewhat straightforward independent weekly and a less regularly appearing comedy paper.

By the way, UCSC, like the rest of Santa Cruz has plenty of its own divisive issues. I imagine this has only been exacerbated by budget cuts.

And, oh, it also has a really interesting graduate-level Science Writing program that has produced some pretty fantastic journalists who, indeed, continue to write about science. More on that in a moment.

Beach

Did I mention the tourists? The Boardwalk? (If you’ve seen Lost Boys, you’ve seen the Boardwalk.) Did I mention that the Boardwalk and thus, the beach most popular with the tourists is directly adjacent to the only truly “bad” neighborhood within the city limits (depending on how you feel about Pacific Avenue)? Not sure the tourists know that. Or that they need to, depending on where their GPS takes them when they leave the Boardwalk parking lot.

Anyway, there’s tourism, and it’s a big deal. Surfing, too. Next heading…

Mountain

Alright, so this is something I didn’t really learn until we launched a commenting system on the Sentinel’s website, but the population of the towns in the mountains (well, call them foothills if you have high standards) between Santa Cruz and San Jose is substantially more conservative than the population of the city. Or at least the vocal commenters were. Anyway, it’s something to be dealt with if you’re reporting in the county.

Newspaper

Have I made this town seem complicated enough?

Enter the Santa Cruz Sentinel, circa 2007.

Without getting too deep into the sordid details of the Sentinel’s ownership, or layoffs, or how its editorial bent (I’d call it center-right) diverged from the town’s politics (left of left), let’s just say the Sentinel was exactly as complicated as most newspapers of similar vintage, circulation, and situation.

My friends at the Sentinel were great at reporting on crime, local personalities, local sports, and a few other things, which is what you’d expect in a town of Santa Cruz’s size.

Unfortunately, that was never really enough for its readers — or its potential readers.

Let’s get to the proposal, shall we?

Finally, now that we’ve introduced all the players, let’s use our imaginations.

But first, one more bit of context, viewed once again through the lens of “stuff I remember but wasn’t personally involved in, really.”

How did the Sentinel and the UC Santa Cruz Science Writing program work together?

Well, there were interns. Grad student science writing interns. And here’s where I think we slipped up: They were assigned (or helped out with) regular newspaper beats. They wrote obits, they covered events, they learned how a daily newspaper functioned, and the news organization got an extra body or two to throw at a wide range of places and people.

I suppose that went alright, but what if:

The Sentinel and UC Santa Cruz had put the science writing skills of those students to use, directly, and produced a weekly science page, probably running it instead of stale wire copy on a weekly “technology” page which was almost insultingly redundant in a highly connected Silicon Valley-adjacent community.

OK, let’s see if I can present that idea again without a clause that trails off into some bitter memory of wasted efforts…

The Sentinel and UC Santa Cruz should have been producing science content with their science writing resources, not squeezing science writers into the mold of a daily newspaper intern.

A Short List of the Possibilities:

  • A weekly Science page with local content, stories about local researchers, local companies, local innovation.
  • Local technology companies as advertisers. Plantronics or Seagate, for example. Or a Science and Technology jobs page sponsored by local companies, and even startups.
  • Do the same with a niche website — we built these in WordPress and Joomla for local entertainment and surfing — and give UCSC science writing students access to blog there — to use the joint Science site as a group blog for ideas, inspiration, and insights into the science community around the university and the town.
  • How about an e-mail newsletter version with a subscription model: a dollar a month, or five bucks per year, and you get the best of the science section, plus other
  • Use the revenue from these new products to pay the interns, perhaps in some sort of interesting combination of an hourly, per-story, and page view model. (I honestly don’t remember if they were paid, or just received credit, or a combination of both.)

What do you think?

Actually, I’ll pose that question to some folks at the Sentinel, and to some friends who went through the Science Writing program, and invite them to respond here.

We’ll see who shows up.

UPDATE:

Here’s who showed up: Former Sentinel Executive Editor Tom Honig. See Tom’s comment, below, for confirmation that not only am I on the right track, but I’m proposing things that have been tried before. No surprise, I guess. I do specialize in overstating the obvious.

From Tom’s comment:

“It might surprise you to know that shortly thereafter, the Sentinel did launch a science section. Peggy Townsend was its lead editor, and we actually used the science students a great deal for that section. It had an open cover and a couple of pages inside. We mixed up the content between staff-written, student-written and wire stories. My recollection is that it was a fascinating section.”

Looking back: My year at the Santa Cruz Sentinel

For those of you unfamiliar with my personal and professional timeline, I worked at the Santa Cruz Sentinel from October 2006 through the end of September 2007, first in a position accurately titled Webmaster, and later as the Online Editor, working in a mostly bright, young newsroom in downtown Santa Cruz, blocks from the Pacific Ocean.  I walked to work.  I liked it.

Morale got pretty crappy there a couple corporate owners into my stay, and rather than stick around when the newsroom moved a couple miles up the highway out of town, I took a new job with a GateHouse Media in Fairport, NY, worked from home for a while, and then moved out here to the frozen (well, it’s been warm and melty for a couple days as I write this) tundra.

So the year in question isn’t 2008, it’s October 2006 through September 2007.

Tom Honig was the executive editor at the Sentinel during my time there, and along with Don Miller, the managing editor, presided over what were clearly pretty crappy times for a local newspaper.

If you’ve been reading my blog on any sort of regular basis, you know that I’m not one to pull punches when it comes to newspaper management, but I am going to disappoint you if you expect me to dish about the miniature dramas and deleted blog posts and questionable decisions that are the fodder of local e-mail newsletters and DeCinzo cartoons.

In other words, sure, these guys weren’t geniuses at operating a newspaper in a market that was completely, utterly, and politically disconnected from them, but hey, they certainly weren’t the only ones in that situation in 2006-2007.

That said, I was curious when Honig passed along a link to a recent story he wrote for the local alt-weekly about the state of the Sentinel since MediaNews bought the paper.

Here’s a clip:

“Community newspapers ought to forget about the frivolous stories. Sure, go ahead and put wire stories about Madonna and Heather Locklear somewhere in the paper. But when it comes to local, the core audience–the ones who will keep buying the paper–want real news. Is the water clean, and is there enough of it? If you oppose widening Highway 1, what real-world solution is there to mass transit? How much pollution is spewed into the air over Highway 1, and would it be less or more if a lane were added? Forget the tree-sitters at UCSC–what kind of research is being done on campus, and how about a story explaining in simple language what they’re working on at the Human Genome Project? Is illegal immigration affecting wages in Santa Cruz? What has happened to all those loan officers from the housing boom? Is District Attorney Bob Lee looking into any illegal predatory lending practices? If he isn’t, why not”

There’s nothing in there that’s news to me, and anyone who was in an A1 meeting that year with Tom and Don know what in that paragraph to take with a grain of salt, but it certainly did get me thinking about what I learned (a lot) from my year at the Sentinel.

Here are a few of the more specific things I learned at the Sentinel that should apply to any newsroom:

  • The copy chief is likely to be the smartest person in the room.
  • Make sure that crazy thing you heard on the scanner isn’t a drill.  Do not speed over to the wharf unless you’ve confirmed there’s a car in the water, or a beached whale.  (Alternate: If the sun is setting and you really feel like taking a walk on the wharf, don’t confirm anything. Just go.)
  • If anyone tells you it’s a good idea to do a daily video newscast that’s anything less than Ledger Live, tell them they’re wasting your time, then go outside with the video camera and shoot something new.
  • Make friends with the cops reporter, who will have a steady supply of breaking news.
  • Any camera will do the job when news breaks.  Many reporters e-mailed in photos taken with mobile phones from accident scenes and other situations where it would have been at least an hour before a photographer’s camera or a reporter’s SD card would have been back in the newsroom to be ravaged.
  • Let everyone take a turn with the audio and video equipment, but put everything in crash cases so when it falls off their desk, it bounces..  (You know who you are…)
  • Don’t lay off the education reporter AND the higher education reporter in a college town with serious school funding issues.
  • If you can’t figure out what photo would go with your story, you’ve written the wrong story.  Go back to your notes and find a human being.
  • When you’re shooting video for a newspaper and you find yourself standing next to three shooters from local TV, you’re standing in the wrong place.  Don’t bother duplicating their story — go find something better than a stand-up.
  • The reporter who writes the “society” column is the person to go to when you need a source, or a phone number, or a story idea.
  • If you want to get anything really great done, treat every conversation with management as though it were your exit interview. 😉

Bonus link: A letter to the editor in the alt-weekly the following week, which manages to both amuse and sadden while it repeats the common jab at newspapers that don’t write stories about their own layoffs. (It really is a personnel issue, people.)

Super-extra bonus link: The video I shot of the last press run in downtown Santa Cruz before the press was sold for scrap and the Mercury News started printing the Sentinel.

Only-in-Santa-Cruz bonus link: The truck carrying the press over Highway 17 wrecked, providing the Sentinel with a news story.  Eh, actually, no link to that.  Either it happened before the Sentinel switched content management systems and is gone from the Interwebs for now, or it’s behind an archive paywall anyway.  The jist of it: The truck carrying the Sentinel press to be scrapped rolled over on Highway 17.

You have 17 nights left to Challenge yourself.

I remember where I was the first time I read about the Knight News Challenge and was inspired enough to blog about it.

A tire shop.  This one:

lloydstiresantacruz

(Photo yanked from Google Maps Street View.)

Seriously, it was late in September 2006 and I was sitting with my huge beast of a laptop in the waiting area at a tire shop on River Street in Santa Cruz, a few weeks after finishing an internship as a reporter for the ANG regional desk at the Oakland Tribune, and a few weeks into my last semester (of in-person classes, anyway) at San Jose State.

I needed a new tire because the 880 had not been kind to the Honda, which I had been driving back and forth to Oakland, 140 miles round-trip, four days a week for the duration of the internship.

There was no work in Oakland for me that fall, and to this day the Honda thanks Dean Singleton for that, but two weeks later I would find a job at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which allowed me to *walk* to work for almost a year.

+++

So that’s the story of where I was when I read about the Knight News Challenge and didn’t submit a proposal.  A year later I had an idea, sent it in, and joined a group of innovative thinkers who blow me away with their passion for building tools that enable those with less access, or fewer resources, or the odds stacked against them to communicate, participate, and inform each other.

You’re passionate about all those things, aren’t you?

But you’ve got to be in it to win it.

(Yeah, I said that, just now. Not out loud, but right here.)

The deadline is November 1.

It’s time for you to give that great idea of yours a chance to strut in the moonlight, to stretch its legs, to get some air, to get some life.  Bring out your brilliant plan to save Journalism — or better yet — to help improve the news, one town at a time.

Start at the Garage, where you can collect feedback and soak up some input from past winners and anyone else willing to help.

Refine your pitch by a few notches, then sit down and fill out the application form online. It won’t take long.

You’ll be glad you did it.

Keep this in mind: A real desire to improve the world is a prerequisite here.  But more practically speaking, there are four main parameters you’ll hear repeated a lot by the News Challenge folks*:

  1. Be innovative: Take it and turn it, don’t just build the same old thing in the same old places for the same old people.
  2. Be open-source: There’s not a whole lot of proprietary code kicking around here. You should plan to build something that can be repeated by others using free technology, whether it’s PHP or low-cost electronics to build hardware.
  3. Be local: This is crucial, and my project is a bit of a twist on this rule, but you should be proposing to save a town, not the whole world. Your testbed for this great innovative open-source idea of yours should be someone’s backyard. If you’re building a tool, plan to pick a geographic place to deploy your tool first.  It helps — greatly — if they need it.  Fill an unserved niche in an underserved place.
  4. Serve the public: You’re here to help. This idea of yours, it’s not for you; it’s for the greater good.

*(Note: These are my translations. For the official phrasing, check out the FAQ.)

Map thyself

{Carnival! There’s a journalism blog carnival under way, hosted — if you can wrap your head around that concept — by the folks at Scribblesheet, some sort of collaborative writing tool I haven’t had a chance to look at yet. Here’s a review of their product at the Online Journalism Blog.}

I’ve written pretty extensively about the merits of using free online tools to embed, well, just about anything, in an online news story. Here are two map-based examples from opposite ends of the spectrum:

In the major metro disaster scene category, we have The Oregonian’s coverage of what looks like a pretty hardcore wind and rain storm this week, with all the photos, multimedia, and many stories aggregated on a Google map that a Web Producer* built the complicated way: updating a KML file and embedding the map created by it.

Here’s a snip of what the page looks like today:

Oregonian Storm Map 2007

The headlines on the left are being pulled off of RSS feeds from a couple different sections of the news site; the photos on the right are from a Flickr collection of photos by staff photographers. (Any contributed photos here? Why not a call for readers who use Flickr to tag their photos something common and pull that feed?)

It’s easy to navigate, with lots of content (including video that plays in an embedded Brightcove player in the pop-up from the spot on the map – always nice to see that), and once the files are put together, it’s not difficult for a producer to update the map.

At the other end of the continuum we have my local paper, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, filling a hyperlocal need with a map of where to find houses and businesses decked out with lights for the holidays.

Santa Cruz Holiday Lights Map 2007

I love it. In fact, I live here, and I’m planning to use the map as a guide to take my family out to see the lights.

The folks in Santa Cruz (full disclosure: I worked at the Sentinel for a year) used ZeeMaps, a free map-building tool where you can add content to a map, embed it in your site, and most important for this exercise, allow your readers to add points on the map themselves.

Which means the map is an interactive, dynamic source of information for your community.

There are more than a few sites to help you get this job done. Check out FMAtlas or MapBuilder or even the ‘My Maps’ feature in Google Maps.

And if those tools are old news to you and you’re ready to go a little deeper down the rabbit hole, here’s the place to start learning about rolling your own embedded map.

Need more inspiration? Check out this list over more than 1,000 Google Maps mashups.

*The Oregonian Web Producer in question was Mark Friesen of NewsDesigner.com, who needs to update his blog.